I don’t mean to come across as an enemy of Plain English as a concept – indeed I spent one memorable Boxing Day a few years ago rewriting the Sustainable Community Strategy Environmentally Friendly People Plan in order that it should be in some language intelligible to, well, anyone really. At the same time, things I support include apostrophes (in their correct place), and use of Latin-derived terms in common English usage (where they are appropriate). The last straw with the PEC for me was the day they said we should no longer use “e.g.” in case people got it confused with the word “egg”. Has this ever happened to you? How would it happen? Maybe you sent your PA an e-mail in the morning and said “If you’re popping out, could you get me something for lunch, e.g. sandwich”, and she returned with an egg mayo and cress baguette? I’d quite like that anyway so no real harm done. Is the PEC run by a secret cabal of vegan managers with dyslexic secretaries? The people must be told!
Still, making sense is better than making no sense, so I would “cautiously welcome” the LGA’s “Banned Words” list. Or I would, but “cautiously welcome” has been included on the banned list, so I have instead to say that “the devil is in the detail”. Where I am concerned is that in a number of cases the suggested alternatives are less clear than the, admittedly more complex-sounding, original terms, or indeed lose the meaning entirely. To be absolutely fair to the LGA, they describe this as 200 words that public bodies should not use if they want to communicate effectively with local people. So as I understand it, we are still free to use jargon to talk to one another.
That’s quite important, since the banned words list contains acronyms and concepts which would be rather difficult to put in another form – the LAA and the MAA are what they are, even if it might be clumsy. Of course we could call them “the partnership of public services” or “us lot working together to sort the economy out for you lot” when we talk to the public, and probably should – as long as we’re doing it to communicate more effectively, not because we think our residents are idiots. Where I am more concerned is some cases where it seems that the LGA has failed to understand what a word means when coming up with its alternative.
In particular, they suggest using “singing from the same hymn sheet” as a replacement for “coterminosity”. Coterminosity means that two things have the same boundaries. So NHS Barking and Dagenham, the local PCT, is coterminous with Barking and Dagenham Council – this is important in, for instance, effective joint working in social care. Singing from the same hymn sheet is important too, but it’s not the same thing as being coterminous.
Wiltshire PCT is coterminous with Wiltshire County Council. If you ask Wiltshire what was important in the reorganisation of their PCT, they will say that singing from the same hymn sheet is great, but being coterminous was an important first step in achieving that. Great Yarmouth and Waveney PCT, in contrast, takes in a bit of Norfolk, and a bit of Suffolk. They might be very good at working with Norfolk CC and Suffolk CC children’s and adult services departments, but they could raise their voices in pitch-perfect threefold union throughout all 542 entries in the New English Hymnal, and it still wouldn’t make them coterminous. I fear in any case that the number of people who know what a hymn-sheet is has dwindled over recent years and may not be that much greater than those versed in coterminosity, but that’s an aside.
The LGA also suggests we cease using the word “outsourcing” and start using the more common “privatising”. I think these are potentially different things, and indeed I think the LGA also thinks they are different things, and would disagree if you said they had privatised their back office functions (see also ‘unemployment’ and ‘worklessness’). We need to be clear about whether people really are using these “banned words” in an inappropriate context, otherwise I think we may be beating ourselves up in public for no good reason – and whatever else, this story has certainly generated a lot of coverage. Has anyone actually ever said “predictors of beaconicity” in a press release aimed at the general public or non-trade media? I haven’t.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to engage in some capacity building – there’s a menu of options in my local hostelry and I need to decide which one needs enabling to cascade downstream. I see the campaign to save coterminosity has sprung into action already – see here and here.